We live in a world with way, way, too much information. The way we cope with this reality is with selective attention. And a primary tool we use to do that selection is through story. We use the narratives of our personal stories and the stories that organize what we believe as filters. We ask, “How does everything coming at me fit into my stories?” What doesn’t fit tends to get rejected.
We also have a national story that the President strives to shape. Think of Obama’s story of change we can believe in, of hope, of world community and embracing diversity, Hillary’s better together story. All these liberal stories are now on the way out. Trump’s story he campaigned on, “Everything is terrible and we need to make America great again” is likely to become the new dominant story the Republicans will champion. We need to look backward, they are saying, to some better time in the past to recover what was and make it so again. Of course the unspoken part of that statement is, “For whom?” For non-whites going backwards is anything but attractive. For environmentalists remembering flaming rivers that were open sewers, it doesn’t sound so good either. How about the good old days when we had horrible smog, leaded gasoline or the streets were knee deep in animal dung before the internal combustion engine? How about returning to the era before antibiotics for that matter? When I look backward in time, I don’t see much I want to return to.
Liberals tend to be forward looking people. We don’t look backward, we envision a brighter tomorrow with peace, justice, harmony, compassion, equity and equality and well-being for all people. When we hear about a new administration taking us backward rather than forward, reversing gains we thought would be permanent changes, we get very distressed.
The Thanksgiving story is one of those Hallmark Card moments. It is a sanitized glimpse into the past that really doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. As a national myth of peace and brotherly love that showcases American values, it falls flat on its face upon more careful inspection. The national myth of Thanksgiving was created by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War for the purpose of stimulating national unity. And this is the rub. Given our far less than glorious past, we need symbols of unity to bring us together. But they need to be forward focused as a potential rather than backward focused celebrating some idealized past.
The problem with celebrating our past is just how wretched it really was….
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